[Never Say Diet] Obesity, Custody Battles and the Good Divorce

iVillage Never Say Diet Obesity Custody Battles

Only everything, if you ask a certain class of divorce lawyers. Which the Wall Street Journal did. I’m finding the whole thing infuriating over on Never Say Diet today, and it’s not just because it’s offensive to fat people — and thus, to everyone with a body. To be honest, I’ve been riled up ever since I read Susan Gregory Thomas’s piece in the Sunday New York Times about whether “The Good Divorce” is really all that good for kids. She ultimately concludes that it can be, but along the way she cites research finding “children of divorce score worse in math and social skills, and suffer from lower self-esteem than those from non-divorce households, period.” And if you check out the comments over on Peggy Orenstein’s Motherlode post on the story, it’s clear that plenty of readers are skeptical of the concept as well.

As it just so happens, I come from a Good Divorce — my parents share holidays and vacations, welcomed each other’s new spouses and children to the family, and never, ever fought in front of me or undermined each other’s authority. So confidential to those researchers: I scored 700 on my math SATs. And my social skills and self-esteem are generally through the goddamn roof.

There are exactly three things about me that will tell you I come from a “broken home:” I’m really organized, after 18 years of joint custody. (It’s great to live with both your parents. It is not great to forget half your science homework at the other parent’s house.) I over-worry about where my husband and I will spend the holidays now because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

And I will become irate quite quickly when you try to tell me how much divorce messes with kids’ heads.

I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. For every Good Divorce, there are thousands of terrible, heartbreaking divorces where parents won’t or can’t put their differences aside for the collective family good. But what really messed with my head as a kid wasn’t anything my parents did. (I mean: They made me organized. And considerate of other people’s feelings. Quel horreur!) It was the cultural perception of my family as fractured and dysfunctional. Teachers, friends’ parents, and unsolicited strangers often shook their heads and tsked that my cruel parents made me spend half the week at each of their homes so they could play equally important roles in my life. Everybody assumed I must hate my step-parents or new half-siblings (nope, they’re cool). One school secretary told me it was so sad that I had a hyphenated last name, “because it shows you’re secretly hoping your parents will get back together.” I had a lot of feelings about her.

Fortunately, since my family is pretty kick-*ss, these experiences didn’t leave many lasting scars. I’ve long assumed all that early cultural confusion was a sign of how trailblazing my parents were, since they more or less invented the Good Divorce back in the early 1980s. After all, as Thomas notes in her article, 30 years ago, only three states upheld joint custody arrangements at all — now they all do. I didn’t even know what to call it back then — I’d just have to say, “my parents are divorced — but no, really, they like each other.” We’ve made so much progress, right?

But when I read about trumped up custody battle tactics like “you’re too fat to be a mom,” and shoddy, stereotype-perpetuating research like “divorced kids suck at math,” I realize that the Good Divorce is still depressingly rare. And this traps families in unhappy marriages because there’s a default assumption that anyone getting divorced is screwing up. When in fact, getting divorced is very often an act of great courage — and of love.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “[Never Say Diet] Obesity, Custody Battles and the Good Divorce

  1. Bringing someone’s body type, sexual preference, or religion into things is erroneous and bigoted. As is attempting to use a controlled, functional mental illness against a person. The only thing that should be considered is this: is the person a good parent?
    There was a situation I remember in which the children were automatically awarded to the mother when it was apparent to anyone with a grain of sense that the father was the better parent. The mother was always calling the police and trying to get the father in trouble for things that the police themselves knew weren’t true, such as the time she claimed he “raped me and threw me from a moving van.” There wasn’t a scratch on her. These calls were weekly and equally ridiculous each time. His older children knew nothing their mother said about their father was true. The younger ones had no idea what was going on.
    My son is the product of a good divorce. I asked him once whether he had any psychological problems from the fact that his father and I were divorced. He said “no, but I got sick of bouncing from house to house. It was kind of chaotic sometimes.” That was all.
    To think that the courts think it’s okay to use a person’s body type as a criteria for whether or not they’re a good parent astounds and disgusts me.

  2. Marian sole

    Virginia, you were lucky to have remarkable step parents but we were all blessed to have such a great daughter ( with wonderful brother and sister). My combined family is truly the joy of my life. Love M

  3. After reading your thoughts, I felt compelled to comment. I too experienced my parents go through a good divorce. My experiences are almost identical to yours. Now, at almost 30 years old, both of my parents still play a significant role in my and my sister’s lives, our parents are friendly with each other, my dad goes to what is now my mom’s house to catch up with my sister and talk to my mom. We spend holidays together. As hard as it was to go through it, I know that my parents are happier now that they are no longer married (I frequently feel saying “my parents are divorced” implies a level of tragedy that doesn’t exist in this situation.) As for me, I am intelligent, confident, self assured, independent to a fault, and shockingly well adjusted given the sort of world we live in. I create and then reach goal after goal (I’m 3/4 of the way to my MA and after this it’s on to an MFA so I can teach ceramics.) The dissolution of my parents’ marriage has, if anything, shown me that the end of a marriage does not mean the end of a loving and happy family and can, in fact, mean the beginning of a better, even happier life for ALL involved. I’ve never been particularly good at math but that isn’t from my parents divorce- it’s from not being particularly good at math (and I still scored 500 on the Math portion of the SATs.)

    • Yay! We need more stories like these out there! Thanks for sharing. (And math is so not my favorite subject either — I just couldn’t let those researchers get away with the sh*t. But man, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into those SATs… and come to think of it, spending half of every week at my math genius father’s house was also pretty critical, so again, score one for the good divorce!)

  4. ALS

    I too am a child of a “good divorce.” We lived with my mom, but my dad lived in another house on our block. We had unlimited access to both our parents, and our step-parents were a huge and welcome part of our family. When my mom and step-dad separated briefly (they reconciled a short time later) my step-dad actually moved into my dad’s house and still continued to spend time with me and my brother. I tell people that I don’t feel like it was detrimental at all–rather than having two loving parents and one home, I had four and two homes. It was actually a wonderful way to grow up, and I think it taught me how to negotiate, how relationships are not all or nothing, to be considerate of other people’s feelings, to see the multiple sides of one story, etc. But its so far from the mainstream that people often look at me askance, or suspect I am not being truthful, or that my happy memories are concealing some dark secret that I’ve suppressed because no one’s “broken family” can be that functional. I was an A student throughout high school (wouldn’t you be if you had 4 parents to appease? And I mean that in a teasing way, not a threatening way) and scored well on all my tests, I’ve always had strong, healthy relationships with the adults in my life (especially other peoples parents) and very stable relationships with my significant others. I’ve been with my husband for 9 years (married for 5.) I realize I am in the minority, but it was great to read about someone elses “dysfunctional family” not operating in appropriately dysfunctional ways!

  5. Marsha Calhoun

    I was so happy to read this. My stepson and his wife are divorcing, intelligently I think (even though I wish they wouldn’t because they are both so wonderful and I love them so much). I believe that my grandchildren will prosper as you have because their parents love them and will not let them forget it. You have reassured me that this is more than just possible.

    • Hi Marsha,

      I’m sorry to hear about your stepson’s divorce, but YES — this is so possible, as my story and the stories in these comments show.

      And if I can reassure you even further: I know all of my grandparents were worried when my parents divorced. But my parents didn’t just work on keeping our family together (albeit in a new and later expanded form) — this applied to our extended family, too. My mom is still quite close to my paternal grandparents. When my maternal grandfather passed away, my father and paternal grandparents came to the funeral to support my mom (this involved everybody flying over 3,000 miles!). My mother has also bonded with my step-grandmother on my stepmom’s side…and if you’re still following all of this, my dad and stepmom have celebrated many Christmas Eves at my stepdad’s parents house (along with the rest of us, of course).

      I can’t speak for them, of course, but I think my grandparents have ended up feeling like my parents’ divorce expanded and enriched their family… I hope the same is true for you!

      • Marian sole

        One of the best things I did after my divorce was to go on vacation with Virginia and my ex mother- in-law. The three of us had a wonderful memorable time and we were able to continue our previous closeness.

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